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Alastair Thompson

Let’s change the conversation on children in care

As the recent Guardian article illustrates (‘Greedy Financiers profiting from the Pain of Children’), the debate about the market for providing children’s care is intensifying.

There is no doubt that this market is broken; certainly in the economic sense and, in some quarters, morally as well. We are seeing increased consolidation, reduced competition – and as the Guardian and those actually working in the sector suggest – some cases of excess profits and aggressive tax avoidance. These developments are currently going unchecked, and fly in the face of the motivations of those who actually do the ‘provision’ and look after vulnerable children 24 hours a day.

For all the strategic planning and contract framework arrangements, day-to-day care placement conversations between commissioners and providers increasingly seem to be reduced to a desperate attempt to secure any placement at all, rather than one which prioritises the child’s needs and pursues ambitious outcomes. This inevitably undermines trust and can spark a vicious circle.

To fix this situation, we need to take action to correct the market and, in truth, no amount of provider-blaming will help. Provider plurality is important – for competition, innovation, collaboration, and to ensure that the provision of care specialisms continues.

It is the responsibility of those who can make a difference to create the conditions in which the best possible provision is found, while also encouraging provider plurality.

To make the provider market work for the children it is intended to serve, we must therefore change the debate about how we value care, in all senses of the word. Children’s Services departments must become better at capturing what children need and what outcomes are achieved through the care system. It is critical that we are able to measure progress over time.

We can only get the money and the right support to the children who need it most by showing where providers are helping to achieve great outcomes (and it’s worth noting that many providers of all stripes already are). We will fix the market by ending the preoccupation with cost, and focusing instead on needs, outcomes and value.

Through our Valuing Care programme, a number of forward-thinking councils are already getting on with this. These councils want to make the placement process a constructive one which is centred on the child (and ideally led by the children themselves), and they want to show what value the whole system is adding to individuals’ life chances.

They recognise that this means looking at their own behaviours, for example in relation to how they tell the child’s story to providers and carers, how they guide and support the market on what is needed, or how they avoid creating unnecessary emergency placement situations. By working positively with providers (and potential providers) as partners, defining great care and calling out poor value, they are taking responsibility and changing the conversation.

To find out more about Valuing Care, please get in touch.

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